25 February 2008

Chefs for Peace

The BBC has an interesting article up about an association of 45 Jewish, Muslim and Christian chefs from Israel and Palestine called Chefs for Peace. A few of them at a time get together and take charge of kitchens together as their collective contribution to Middle East peace. As Kevork Alemian, a chef who works in East Jerusalem, says, "In the kitchen, we use the most dangerous utensil, the knife. But here all of us -- Muslim, Christian, Jew -- we use it to make beautiful food."

Changing your gender in Iran

In Iran, homosexual acts are a crime punishable by death. However, there is a way out for homosexuals who want to live with members of the same sex: getting a sex change operation. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict allowing sex change operations after coming to power in 1979. Since then, Iran's Islamist government has recognised sex change as legal upon recommendation by a doctor. The government covers upto half the cost, and the change is marked on one's birth certificate. Iran now has the second-highest annual number of sex change operations in the world.

According to Hojjatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, the cleric in charge of sex change in Iran, the procedure is as permissible by Islam as "changing wheat to flour to bread". However, according to Kariminia,

The discussion is fundamentally separate from a discussion regarding homosexuals. Absolutely not related. Homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion. It is clearly stated in our Islamic law that such behaviour is not allowed because it disrupts the social order.

Nevertheless, it is often homosexuals who resort to sex change in Iran. They often do so after facing taunts from colleagues and passers-by, and also from a wish to have an open relationship with their same-sex partner, who is no longer same-sex after the surgery.

The Iranians who undergo sex change operations often face opposition from their parents; Iranian society is not nearly as accepting of the procedure as the government is. Negar, a 27-year-old woman who was once a man named Ali Askar, says that her father tried to kill her to keep her from going through with the surgery. She subsequently left home and had to work as a prostitute to make ends meet.

On the other hand, Shahin, the mother of 21-year-old Anahita (formerly a man named Anoosh) is happy with her decision to become female. According to Shahin,

A boy will always just get married and leave his mum, but a girl stays, a girl is always yours and will never leave, and now I will never experience the sadness that occurs when a boy leaves. I always wanted a daughter and I think it's a gift from God that I finally got one.

Anahita's brother Ali Reza is not so sure, though. "
I have had a brother for many years. I can't just suddenly accept him as my sister. If I refer to him as my brother he gets upset. But it's hard for me to believe this," he complains. Nevertheless, Anahita is engaged to her boyfriend, and has found that the sex change has enabled her to live in peace. "Now when someone is attracted to me, it is as a girl," she says (BBC).

Taliban threaten mobile phone operators

The Taliban have threatened to destroy mobile phone towers and the offices of mobile phone companies in Afghanistan if the companies don't agree to stop mobile phone calls between 5:00 pm and 3:00 am each day. Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said the movement was giving mobile phone companies three days to comply.

According to the Taliban, US forces in Afghanistan have been using night-time calls to track down members of the mililtant movement.

Mobile phones were first introduced in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 (BBC).

18 February 2008

Islamic Jihad militant killed in Gaza

A bomb explosion in the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip has killed at least seven people, among them Ayman Fayed, an Islamic Jihad leader. Fayed's wife and two of their children were also killed. Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza Strip, said that it was not clear what had caused the explosion, while Islamic Jihad blamed Israel and promised revenge (BBC).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali asks European Parliament for protection

The ex-Muslim and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, formerly a Dutch MP and currently working for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., has asked the European Parliament to create a fund for the physical defence of people threatened by extremists. Ms Ali received a death threat in 2004 from the murderer of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The issue of her protection has arisen now because the Dutch government is no longer to willing to pay to protect her since she lives in the US. Ms Ali herself cannot afford to pay for bodyguards (BBC).

Danish atheist starts campaign to apologise to Muslims

Anders Bøtter, an atheist Danish student, has started a Facebook group called Sorry Muhammad, which is calling on Danes to apologise to Muslims over the reprinting of a defamatory cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Bøtter says that the cartoon issue has become unncessarily polarising, and that, while he is not personally insulted by the cartoon, its reprinting "hurts the feelings of Muslims a lot". In his words,

What does hurt my feelings is when a Danish newspaper publishes these very mocking cartoons of Muhammad. For me this is not a matter of a drawing but the mocking of one of our minority groups in Denmark and that's a big problem. That is why I apologise for being a Dane coming from Denmark.

This is not the first time
Bøtter has taken action over the cartoons: after their initial publication in 2006, he apologised to his Muslim friends in different countries by e-mail. This time around, Bøtter is trying to get 10,000 Danes to join his group; over 1,000 did in the first day of its existence. One Danish girl wrote to Bøtter saying that the very existence of his group made her feel proud to be Danish, because of its attempt to engage in dialogue.

A rival Facebook group has been set up by those who think there is nothing to apologise about; the group is called No Need to Apologise to Muhammad (BBC).

Bøtter is a true man of conscience, and I hope he gets his 10,000 members. He understands the issue for what it is: needless insults heaped repeatedly on a minority that is disadvantaged as it is. Let's hope that any Muslims who may be frustrated with Denmark over the issue also see that there is more than one side to the country.

Danish MPs cancel Iran trip over cartoons

A group of nine Danish MPs who were due to visit Iran have called off the trip two days before their scheduled departure, after being asked by the Iranian parliament to apologise over the recent reprinting of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) wearing a turban with a bomb in it. Villy Søvndal, the head of the Socialist People's Party, said that "If anyone needs to apologise for freedom of speech, human rights, imprisonments, executions and lack of democracy, it is the Iranians" (BBC).

So if one group of people acts in a way that others find offensive, does that mean that those opposed must also try to be offensive? Is that what
Søvndal is trying to proclaim?

17 February 2008

Taliban blamed for Kandahar suicide bombing

At least 65 people have been killed in a suicide bomb attack on a dog fighting match in Kandahar. According to Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid, the Taliban carried out the attack. One of the people killed was a police chief called Abdul Hakim, and he is thought to have been the main target of the attack (BBC).

Five Anglican parishes in Canada plan to break away

Three Anglican parishes in British Columbia and two in Ontario are planning to separate from the Anglican Church of Canada over the issue of the blessing of same-sex marriages. The General Synod of the Church decided last June that blessing same-sex marriages was not against basic church doctrine, promting anger among more conservative congregations.

The five break-away parishes may join conservative Anglican Churches in other parts of the world. It seems, however, that the Anglican Church of Canada may not let them leave quietly, and disputes over church property may be brewing (National Post).

Turkey legalises headscarves at universities

The Turkish parliament voted earlier this month to lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves on university campuses. The ban was put in place in 1991 through the constitutional court's decision that heascarves worn at state-owned universities violated the separation of religion and the state. The constitutional provision that allowed the court to reach that conclusion has now been repealed. The issues does not seem settled yet, though, since the new constitutional amendment may face a court challenge (Wall Street Journal).

Nevertheless, this is a very important step for Turkey to have taken, and it proves that the country is actually moving towards being a genuine democracy.

Congratulations, Kosovo!

I'd like to congratulate the newest country in the world, Kosovo, on its independence, proclaimed today.

All the best to the people of Kosovo, who have struggled long and hard to reach this point.

16 February 2008

UK Shari'a row exposes limits of tolerance

Last week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a major row in Britain when he suggested that "aspects" of the Shari'a would eventually be incorporated into British law, and said that British Muslims should not be faced with "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty". Archbishop Williams faced a barrage of criticism after his comments, both from within and without the Anglican Church.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that it would be "disastrous" to incorporate any Shari'a-based laws into the British legal system. Col Edward Armitstead, a member of the General Synod of the Church, said he didn't think Williams was "the man for the job". Alison Ruoff, another member of the Synod, said that "in terms of being a leader of the Christian community I think he's actually at the moment a disaster." Brig William Dobbie, a former member of the Synod, said that Williams's words on the Shari'a were "a tragic mistake." Ordinary Muslims a BBC correspondent talked to in Bradford also seemed opposed to the idea.

However, in many ways Williams was greatly misunderstood. According to Muhammad Abdul Bari, the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB),

The archbishop is not advocating implementation of the Islamic penal system in Britain. His recommendation is confined to the civil system of Sharia law, and only in accordance with English law and agreeable to established notions of human rights.

The MCB thanked Williams for his "thoughful intervention".

The Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme, criticised the "knee-jerk" response to Williams's suggestions, and added,

We have probably one of the greatest and the brightest Archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day. He is undoubtedly one of the finest minds of this nation. The way he has been ridiculed, lampooned and treated by some people and indeed some of the media within this process, is quite disgraceful.

The highest-ranked female priest in the Church of England, the Very Rev June Osborne, cautiously backed Williams, saying, "Our society needs to be provoked into talking about these things." Alun Michael, a former minister in the Home Office, condemned the "absurd media feeding frenzy" surrounding the issue. Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, condemned the outburst against Williams, saying that such a response created a "fear that people with a Christian conscience will be put to the sidelines and not allowed to say what they believe to be true for the common good."

What Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is saying may be true, since Williams has been shocked by the response into a near-silence on the issue. His website said, however, that some Shari'a-based rules were "already recognised in our society and under our law. The statement added that the Archbishop had been looking for ways in which "
reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience", and was trying to "tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state".

The best part in all this is that, of course, as Williams says, some aspects of the Shari'a already operate in daily lilfe within British law (for example, halal slaughter and the certification of halal meat), and that Orthodox Jews have had their own religious courts in Britian for a long time.

Quite unfortunately, Williams's words were used by some quarters in British society and the media to once again jump on Muslims and decry anything Islamic. It's quite heartening, though, to see voices of calm and moderation not just among British Muslims, but among Christians as well.

Visitor profile, 15 January to 14 February 2008

Welcome to the eleventh installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

This month (15 January to 14 February 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 75 visits, that is, 20% less than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was two a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from Asia, Europe, North America and South America. The majority of visitors (59%) came from Canada, and the United States came second with 21%. Germany came a distant third with 5%.

Within Canada, 39% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (35%) came to Notes on Religion directly. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to the blog was 'pope coming to quebec'. He's probably not coming here this year, though.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (61%). 85% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 February 2008):

The total number of visitors during these eleven months was 1,261. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (40%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (29%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 5%.

Quebec accounted for 60% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (46%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'ishaq nizami'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (50%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

06 February 2008

Kuwait plans to build synagogue

The Britain-based architect Eric Kuhne has announced plans to build a "City of Silk" in Kuwait as the country's own take on the historical Silk Road. The planned city is to lie on the northern shore of Kuwait Bay (most urban development in Kuwait so far has been concentrated to the south of the bay), and is to be 200 sq. km in size. According to Kuhne, the City of Silk is "the largest single real estate development in the Middle East."

In the commercial section of the city, which is to be crisscrossed with canals, there are plans to build a 1,001-m tall tower recalling the One Thousand and One Nights. At the top levels of the tower, there are plans to build three side-by-side houses of worship: a mosque, a church and a synagogue. The idea behind the move is to highlight the "unity" of the monotheistic religions (Arab Times).

It's great news if freedom of worship is to be increased in Kuwait, but I still wonder how the opening of a synagogue would play out, especially if there's yet another humanitarian disaster in Palestine around the time when it is inaugurated.

02 February 2008

Bulgarian Muslims pray for president

Prayers of thanksgiving have been held at mosques in five Bulgarian cities, including Sofia, after President Georgi Parvanov, a non-Muslim, returned safely to Bulgaria from a trip to Mexico. Parvanov's plane had had to make an emergency landing on the Azores on the way back to Bulgaria.

The prayer in Sofia was led by the chief mufti of Bulgaria, Mustafa Alish Hadji. Apparently, the Muslim leadership of Bulgaria decided to hold the prayers thanking God for rescuing Parvanov after getting several calls from Muslims asking them to do so.

Parvanov is popular among Bulgarian Muslims, who supported him in the 2006 presidential election (Novinite.com).

Something Even More Magical

In other news...